Elisa Romani is bringing some Mediterranean sunshine to Featherston with her new venture, Sweet and Salty. But it flows both ways as Elisa says New Zealand in general and Wairarapa in particular has a special place in her heart. By Anne Taylor

Elisa became the proud tenant of the former butcher’s shop building in Daniell St about eight months ago, giving it a cheery yellow makeover inside and out. She now has a steady stream of regular customers plus new converts to her traditional Italian home- style pizzas, mains, breads and desserts.

“Tiramisu is the favourite at the moment,” she says.

An Italian gentleman in his '80s is a regular visitor, and it’s not hard to see why. Elisa’s positive vibe and authentic cooking credentials make Sweet and Salty a must for Italian food fans.

Asked what she likes making most of all she replies: “I love it all, this is my happy place. I put on my Italian pop music and start cooking, and it makes me feel like I’m at home.”

Elisa comes from a long line of bakers starting with her grandfather Amedeo, who owned the only mill in the village of Cerreto Laziale, north of Rome, in the 1940s. Setting up a neighbouring bakery was a necessity as Amedeo had two sons and seven daughters to feed. Then Elisa’s father Agostino inherited the bakery and transformed it into a professional business making fresh bread daily, along with cakes and pizzas.

Elisa grew up in the same village, which is “not unlike Featherston”, she says. Featherston may lack the geranium-filled window boxes and medieval facades, but it does have the close, community spirit.

Elisa grew up with memories of her father starting work at 7pm then heading into Rome at 4am to supply the metropolis with baked goods. Her fondest memories are learning to cook with her grandmother.

“She started every day at 6am, putting a pot on the stove and the whole house would be filled with the smell of pasta sauce cooking all day long.” Elisa remembers wonderful Christmas dinners with tables and chairs set out the length of the hallway to accommodate all the aunts, uncles and their children.

Elisa’s mother is English and she says it was a case of “running the gauntlet” when learning to cook the Italian way, with her tribe of sister-in-laws as critics. But she made the grade over time – and earned their respect for juggling home life with a diplomatic career.

Family and Italy are always in her heart but Elisa also had an eye on the wider world. She gained a degree in international development and human rights and began working with refugees and asylum seekers.

“I loved that work. I’ve always had a passion for people,” she says.

Elisa discovered New Zealand on holiday two years ago while visiting her mother who now lives here.

“As soon as I came here I loved the climate, the people, the freedom. It made me smile to see people going to the dairy in bare feet. I thought ‘this is freedom!’. This is somewhere I could live.”

She began searching for her niche and after several months found herself in Martinborough.

“The people were so friendly. I had people coming to me saying ‘You must need a pillow, some plates’...it was like people adopted me.”

She feels the town at the base of the hill has welcomed her in a similar way. On weekdays, she opens around 3pm to meet the first train, and along with her baked goods she has lasagna, parmigiana, quiche and roast that are perfect family meals for the time-pressured. She also does a lovely selection of desserts and birthday cakes. At the weekend she is open all day on Saturday and Sunday.

She’s a fan of using local organic veges, produce from the market, meat from the local butcher, and olive oil and hazelnuts from Greytown. She’s planning lots of new things for her summer menu, and despite the 18,000 kms that separate her from Cerreto Laziale, she’s channeling her grandmother’s cooking style.

“As a cook you try out your own things but in the end you go back to the original, how it was done in the old days. There’s just no way to make it better.

Sweet and Salty, 11 Daniell St, Featherston Ph: 06 308 8897